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Petrarch (1304-1374) - in full Francesco Petrarca


Italian scholar, poet, and humanist, a major force in the development of the Renaissance. Petrarch is perhaps most famous for his poems addressed to Laura, an idealized beloved whom he met in 1327 and who died in 1348. Attempts have been made to identify her, but all that is known is that Petrarch met Laura in Avignon, where he had entered the household of an influential cardinal. She is generally believed to have been the 19-year-old wife of Hugues de Sade. Petrarch saw her first time in the church of Saint Claire. According to several modern scholars, it is possible that Laura was a fictional character. However, she was a more realistically presented female character than in the conventional songs of the troubadours or in the literature of courtly love.

"In my youth I was blessed with an agile, active body, though not particularly strong; and while I cannot boast of being very handsome, I was good-looking enough in my younger days. I had a clear complexion, between light and dark, lively eyes, and for many years sharp vision, which, however, unexpectedly deserted me when I passed my sixtieth birthday, and forced me, reluctantly, to resort to the use of glasses. Although I had always been perfectly healthy, old age assailed me with its usual array of discomforts." (in 'Letter to Posterity')

Francis Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) was born in Arezzo, the son of a notary, but he spend his early childhood in a village near Florence. His father, Ser Petracco, was expelled from Florence by the Black Guelfs, who had seized power. Also Dante, born in Florence, became at the same year a victim of political reprisals. Petrarch spent much of his early life at Avignon, where Pope Clement V had moved in 1309, and in Carpentras, a little town east of Avignon. He studied at Montpellier (1319-23) and moved to Bologna, where he studied law in 1323-25. Petrarch was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature, sharing this passion with his friend Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), the writer of Decameron.

When his father died in 1326, Petrach returned to Avignon, where he worked in different clerical offices. The turning point in his life was April 6 1327, when he saw Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon. She became the queen of his poetry. "To be able to say how much you love is to love but little," Petrarch wrote in 'To Laura in Death'. Petrarch did not feel at home in Avignon but while staying there he composed numerous sonnets which acquired popularity.

As a scholar and poet, Petrarch soon grew famous, and in 1341 he was crowned as a poet laureate in Rome. He was subsequently charged with various diplomatic missions. The latter part of his life he spent in wandering from city to city in northern Italy as an international celebrity. At Vaucluse, about fifteen miles from Avignon, where he had transferred his books, he wrote among others Bucolicum Carmen (1345-47) and De Vita Solitaria  (1345-47).

In search for old Latin classics and manuscripts, he travelled through France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The manuscripts he brought to Venice, dreaming that they would one day form core of a new Alexandrian Library, were forgotten in a damp palazzo, where they crumbled into dust. In 1337 Petrarach visited Rome for the first time. Disappointed, he wrote: "Where are the numerous constructions erected by Agrippa, of which only the Pantheon remains? Where are the splendorous palaces of the emperors?" The great Rome described in the old books did not exists. After recovering from the shock, he started see in every step "something to exite the tongue and the intellect". Wandering through the ruins, Petrarch tried to recreate the topography of the city. In spite of making mistakes in his research, he is considered a more realiabe observer than his contemporaries.  

Petrarch settled about 1367 in Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious exercises. He died in Arquà in the Euganean Hills on July 18, 1374. According to Domenico Arentino, his death was occasioned by apoplexy. He was found in his library, with his head reclining on a book. To Boccaccio Petrarch bequeathed a small sum of money for a new cloak. Boccaccio surved Petrarch but a year. In 1630 his monument outside the parish church of Arquà was violated by thieves, who stole some of his bones in order to sell them.

Petrarch was regarded as the greatest scholar of his age, who combined interest in classical culture and Christianity and left deep influence on literature throughout Western Europe. The majority of his works Petrarch wrote in Latin, although his sonnets and canzoni composed in Italy were equally influential. Petrarch was known as a devoted student of antiquity, who had a passion for finding and commenting on the works of the ancients. In his letter to posterity he confessed that he always disliked his own age: "I would have preferred to have been born in any other time than our own." But the recovery of the past should not lead to the imitation of the style of Virgil and Cicero: "I much prefer that my own style be my own," he said, "uncultivated and rude, but made to fit, as a garment, to the measure of my mind, rather than to someone else's, which may be more elegant, ambitious, and adorned. . . ."

A prolific correspondent, he wrote many important letters, and his critical spirit made him a founder of Renaissance humanism. Among Petrarch's Latin works are De Virilis Illustribus, a kind of version of Plutarch's Comparative Biograpies, and the epic poem Africa, which has Scipio Africanus as its hero. During the reign of Mussolini,  a new interest arose in the poem, when the Fascist regime began to recreate a "Roman" Empire through the conquest of Ethiopia. Figures like Leopardi and Petrarch were presented as prophets of  Italian national greatness and would-be supporters of the regime.  

The dialogue Secretum, was a debate with St. Augustine. Petrarch ignored Augustine's hostility towards pagan culture, in favor of his references to classical pagan literature. Rejecting the prevailing blind faith in scholastic authorities, he argued that one should not "accept everything without criticism" because it is a sign of intellectual laziness and dullness. Other noteworthy works include Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, Petrarch's most popular Latin prose work, Itinerarium, a guide book to the Holy Land, and De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia, against Aristotelians.

Zefiro torna e'l bel tempo rimena
e i fiori e l'erbe, sua dolce famiglia
a garrir Progne a pianger Filomena
e primavera candida e vermiglia.
Ridono i prati, e'l ciel si rasserena;
Giove s'allegra di mirar suo figlia;
l'aria e l'aqua e la terra è d'amor piena;
ogni animal d'amar si riconsiglia.
Ma per me, lasso! tornano i più gravi
sospiri, che del cor profondo tragge
quella ch'al ciel se ne portò le chiavi;
e cantare augelletti e fiorir piagge
e'n bele donne oneste atti soavi
sono un deserto e fere aspere e selvagge.

Petrarch wrote and revised his sonnets during the years between 1327 and 1374. Canzoniere (Song Book) was inspired by the Lady whom Petrarch names Laura, chronicling his first encounter with her at the age of 23. Intoxicated by Laura, Petrarch wrote of her rare beauty just like the Persian poet and astronomer Omar Khayyám (1048–1131) wrote of wine. However, his love was not returned – her presence causes him unspeakable joy, and on the other hand it creates unendurable desires. There is no definite information concerning Laura, except that she is lovely to look at, with golden hair, and her bearing is modest and dignified. Upon her death, the poet finds that his grief is as difficult to live with as was his former despair. Later in 'Letter to Posterity' Petrarch wrote: "In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair – my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did."

For further reading: Rereading the Renaissance: Petrarch, Augustine, and the Language of Humanism by Carol E. Quillen (1998); Authorizing Petrarch by William J. Kennedy (1994); Orphans of Petrarch: Poetry and Theory in the Spanish Renaissance by Ignacio Navarrete (1994); The Worlds of Petrarch by Giuseppe Mazzotta (1993); Francesco Petrarch Rime Disperse, ed. Joseph A. Barber (1991); Another Reality: Metamorphosis and the Imagination in the Poetry of Ovid, Petrarch, and Ronsard by Kathleen A. Perry (1990); Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, ed. by Charles Southward Singleton et al. (1983); Poet As Philosopher: Petrarch and the Formation of Renaissance Consciousness by Charles Edward Trinkaus (1980); Petrarch: His Life and Times by H.C. Hollway-Calthorp (1972); Petrarch by James H. Robinson (1970); Petrarch and the Renaissance by J.H. Whitfield (1969) - See also: Geoffrey Chaucer, who used for his Clerk's Tale Petrarch's translation into Latin of the Griselda story in the Decameron, as well as a poem from the Rime for the cantus Troili in Troilus and Criseyde In Finnish: Suomeksi Petrarcalta on julkaistu valikoima Sonettaja Lauralle. Juice Leskiseltä on ilmestynyt tekstikokoelma Sonetteja Laumalle. Petrarcan saavuttamattoman intohimon kohdetta Lauraa voi verrata Leskisen haaveiden Marilyniin - "Marilyn, Marilyn, milloin riisut jumpperin?"

Selected works:

  • Rerum Familiarium Libri, 1325-1364
    - Letters from Petrarch (tr. Morris Bishop, 1966) / Rerum familiarum libri I-VIII (tr. Aldo Bernardo, 1975); Letters on Familiar Matters: Rerum familiarum libri IX-XVI (tr. Aldo S. Bernardo, 1982); Letters on Familiar Matters: Rerum familiarum libri XVII-XXIV (tr. Aldo S. Bernardo, 1985) / The Ascent of Mount Ventoux (tr. Mark Musa, in Selections from the Canzionere and Other Works, 1985) / The Ascent of Mount Ventoux: A Letter from Petrarch (tr. James Harvey Robinson, 1989)  
    - Nousu Ventoux'n vuorelle, teoksessa Salaisuuteni ja Nousu Ventoux'n vuorelle (Familiarum rerum libri IV, suom. Laura Lahdensuu, 2008)
  • Rerum Vulgarum Fragmenta,  c.1327-1374 (Il Canzoniere; includes Rime in vita di Laura and Rime in morte di Laura)
    - Sonnets and Stanzas (tr. C.B. Cayley, 1879) / Love Rhymes (tr.  Morris Bishop, 1932) / Sonnets and Songs (tr. A.M. Armi, 1946) / Petrarch’s Canzoniere in the English Renaissance (edited with introduction and notes by Anthony Mortimer, 1975) /  Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The "Rime Sparse" and Other Lyrics (ed. and tr. Robert M. Durling, 1976) / Selections from the Canzionere and Other Works (tr. Mark Musa, 1985) / Petrarch’s Songbook = Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (tr.  James Wyatt Cook, introduction by Germain Warkentin, 1995) / The Canzoniere, Or Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (tr. Mark Musa, 1996) / Canzoniere (ed. and tr. Anthony Mortimer, 2002)
    - Sonetteja Lauralle (suom. Elina Vaara, 1966)
  • De Viris Illustribus, begun 1338-39 [On Illustrious Men]
  • Africa, begun c.1338; published 1396
    - Petrarch’s Africa (translated by Thomas G. Bergin and Alice S. Wilson, 1977)
  • Rerum Memorandum Libri, begun 1342-43 [Books on Matters to be Remembered]
  • Secretum Meum, 1342-58 (De Secreto Conflictu Curarum Mearum)
    - Petrarch's Secret: or, The Soul’s Conflict with Passion (tr. William H. Draper, 1911) / Petrarch’s Secretum: With Introduction, Notes, and Critical Anthology (ed. Davy A. Carozza and H. James Shey, 1989) / The Secret (edited with an introduction by Carol E. Quillen, 2003) / The Secret Book: The Private Conflict of Your Thoughts (edited by Silvia Girardi, translated by Geoffrey Rowland, 2008) / Secretum Petrarch (tr. J.G. Nichols, 2010)
    - Salaisuuteni (suom. Laura Lahdensuu, 2008)
  • Epistolae Metricae, begun c.1345 [Metrical Letters]
  • Bucolicum Carmen, 1345-47
    - Petrarch’s Bucolicum Carmen (tr. Thomas G. Bergin, 1974)
  • De Vita Solitaria, 1345-47
    - The Life of Solitude (tr. Jacob Zeitlin, 1924)
  • De Otio Religiosorum, 1353
    - On Religiouis Leisure (edited & translated by Susan S. Schearer, 2002)
  • De remediis utriusque fortunae, 1354-1366
    - Phisicke against Fortune, as Well Prosperous as Aduerse (tr. Thomas Twyne, 1579;  introd. by Benjamin G. Kohl, 1980) / A Dialogue Between Reason and Adversity:  A Late Middle English Version of Petrarch's "De remediis"  (ed.  F. N. M. Diekstra, 1968) / Petrarch’s Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul (5 vols, with a commentary by Conrad H. Rawski, 1991)
  • Invective Contra Medicum, 1355
    - Invectives against a Physican, in Invectives (ed. and tr. David Marsh, 2003)
  • Invectiva contra quendam magni status hominem sed nullius scientie aut virtutis, 1355
    - Invective against a Man of High Rank with No Knowledge or Virtue, in Invectives (ed. and tr. David Marsh, 2003)
  • Trionfi, 1356-1374
    - Triumps (tr. Lord Morley, 1554) / The Triumphs Of Petrarch: With An Introduction And Notes (tr. Henry Boyd, 1806)  / Triumphs (tr. Ernest Hatch Wilkins, 1962) / Lord Morley’s Tryumphes of Fraunces Petrarcke:  The First English Translation of the Trionfi (ed. D. D. Carnicelli, 1971)
  • Itinerarium ad sepulchrum domini nostri Yehsu Christi, 1358
    - Petrarch’s Guide to the Holy Land (with an introductory essay, translation, and notes by Theodore J. Cachey, Jr., 2002)
  • Rerum Senilium Libri, 1361-1374
    - How a Ruler Ought to Govern His State, in The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society (ed. and tr. Benjamin G. Kohl and Ronald G. Witt, with Elizabeth B. Welles, 1978) / Letters of Old Age (tr. Aldo S. Bernardo et al., 1992)
  • De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia, 1367-1371
    - On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others (ed.  Ernst Cassirer, P. O. Kristeller, and J. H. Randall, Jr., 1948) / On his Own Ignorance, in Invectives (ed. and tr. David Marsh, 2003)
  • Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, 1470 (= Canzoniere / Rime; includes In vita di Madonna Laura  and  In Morte di Madonna Laura)
    - Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta: A Verse Translation (tr. James Wyatt Cook Introduction by Germain Warkentin, 1995)
  • Testamentum, 1370
    - Testament (ed. Theodor E. Mommsen, 1957)
  • Invectiva contra eum qui maledixit Italie, 1373
    - Invective against a Detractor of Italy, in Invectives (ed. and tr. David Marsh, 2003)
  • Opera Latina, 1496
  • Il Petrarcha colla spositione di Misser Giovanni Andrea Gesvaldo, 1541
  • Le rime del Petrarcha, tanto piu corrette quanto piu ultime di tutte stampate, 1549
  • Opera Omnia, 1554 & 1581 (4 vols.)
  • Le rime di Francesco Petrarca riscontrate co i testi a penna della libreria estense, 1711 
  • Poemata Minora, 1829-34 (3 vols. edited by D. Rossetti)
  • Liber Sine Nominre, 1925
    - Petrarch’s Book Without a Name: A Translation of the Liber Sine Nomine (by Norman P. Zacour, 1973)
  • Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Francesco Petrarca, 1926- (Vol. 1: L'Africa, ed. Nicola Festa)
  • Le rime sparse e i Trionfi, 1930 (ed. Ezio Chiòrboli)
  • Le rime di Francesco Petrarca di su gli originali, 1937 (ed. Giosuù Carducci and Severino Ferrari)
  • Rime, trionfi, e poesie latine, 1951 (ed. F. Neri et al.)
  • Prose, 1955 (ed. G. Martellotti et al.)
  • Il canzoniere. Francisci Petrarche laureati poete Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, 1968 (2 vols., ed. Alberto Chiari)
  • Francesco Petrarch Rime Disperse, 1991 (ed.  Joseph A. Barber)
  • Poesie Latine, 1976 (ed. Guido Martellotti and Enrico Bianchi)
  • Rime, 1976 (ed. Giacomo Leopardi, introduction by Adelia Noferi)
  • Canzoniere, 1996 (ed. Marco Santagata)
  • Canzoniere, 1996 (2 vols. ed. Ugo Dotti)
  • Le postille del Virgilio Ambrosiano, 2006 (2 vols., ed. Marco Baglio et al.)
  • The Essential Petrarch, 2010  (edited and translated, with an introduction, by Peter Hainsworth)

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